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Into the Fourth Era of Space Exploration

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

April 12, 2011, marked the anniversaries of two extraordinary historical events. One hundred fifty years ago, on April 12, 1861, rebels in Charleston, S.C., fired on Fort Sumter, igniting the American Civil War. That war had complex economic, political and social origins, but taking seriously the Declaration of Independence's premise that "all men are created equal" was definitely one of those complexities.

Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's space flight on April 12, 1961, is the other extraordinary anniversary. Fifty very short years ago, Gagarin, in a Vostok 1 spacecraft, made a one-orbit trip around the Earth, and became the first human being to fly into space and return.

The American Civil War showcased two history-shaping technologies: the railroad and the telegraph. Both Union and Confederate logisticians amazed European military observers by moving large armies hundreds of miles by rail, and then quickly throwing them into battle. For worse and for better, railroads would ultimately connect Paris to Berlin, then Baghdad, then Beijing.

With the telegraph sending data at the speed of light, Union Gen. William Sherman, in Chattanooga, could contact the War Department in Washington in a matter of minutes. In some respects, the Internet is just a telegraph where everyone is his own telegrapher. In the shorthand method for designating upgrades of software and hardware, think of the telegraph as Internet 1.0.

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Hans Mark speculates that in four or five centuries, people will remember the 20th century for the Apollo moon landings -- human beings physically landing on another heavenly body. Gagarin's spaceflight 50 years ago was the first dramatic success in that venture.

Within the last decade, we have entered what I call the Space Age's fourth phase, Space 4.0. Space 1.0 began with Robert Goddard's rocketry genius, meandered through World War II, and in the Cold War's first decade produced Sputnik and Telstar. Space 2.0 spanned the manned orbital and "moon race" era. It began with Gagarin and culminated with the magnificent Apollo missions.

The American shuttle defined Space 3.0. NASA's space "truck" engaged a Swiss Army knife array of missions, from deploying satellites to experimental manufacturing to transporting astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Coincidentally, April 12, 2011, is the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight (April 12, 1981).

NASA intends to formally end Space 3.0 this year, when the last shuttle mission is scheduled to lift off. However, the transition to the age of commercialization and private space ventures -- Space 4.0, the age of the space entrepreneur -- is already well underway.

In 2009, Apollo 11's 40th anniversary, COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) moved from NASA acronym to reality. SpaceX corporation's Falcon 1 missile launch provided future historians with the moment of indicative drama. On July 13, 2009, the privately financed and privately built Falcon 1 missile placed the Malaysian RazakSAT Earth Observation satellite in orbit.

Other initiatives signal how varied -- and frenzied -- the next three decades will be from low-Earth orbit to the moon. "Space tourism" companies are booking jaunts to and from the ISS. A couple of years ago, another company, Orbital Sciences, tested its Cygnus Pressurized Cargo Module (PCM), which will deliver supplies to the ISS.

Though the entrepreneurial era of transcontinental railroads connecting U.S. and Canadian coasts does capture a sense of this moment's expansive possibilities, Space 4.0 defies historical analogy. Today's near-space entrepreneurs run markedly different kinds of companies and operations than the rail barons. If the relative "high stakes" are comparable (for the North American transcontinental railroads were participants in nation-building), the risks involved and accepted are more immediate and substantial.

The transition to 4.0 from 3.0 won't be smooth. Space 4.0 requires risk capital -- lots of it. NASA's future role is murky. NASA has been the coordinating brain and inspirational heart of America's space effort. As NASA's budget withers, having commercial services deliver cargo and personnel to and from orbit should free NASA to focus on deep-space projects -- the first steps to Space 5.0.

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